April 2001, 5.30 pm, as I was closing my briefcase and getting ready to leave my office for home my intercom rang. The chief wildlife warden of Madhya Pradesh, my boss, P.K. Mishra was on the other side. Hearing from him at that hour was a clear indication that some urgent work is going to land in my lap; he spoke – “Suhas, the principal secretary, wants you to go to Gwalior tonight and investigate the death of a ‘Hiran’ that was found dead some fifteen days ago inside the open foundation of a building under construction”.
The principal secretary, C.S Chadda was a rare IAS officer genuinely concerned for wildlife, and so he had issued a circular to all field officers to report to him all cases of death of wild animals; even if the case involved a hare, it must be reported to him by fax. And owing to the mandatory nature of his instruction, he invariably received the copies of preliminary offence report (POR) of all incidents and accidents involving wild animals. This time it was about discovery of a dead “Hiran” in the outskirts of Gwalior city and the staff of the Gwalior forest division had concluded that it was a natural death but the principal secretary forest was not satisfied with the conclusion of the divisional forest officer (DFO) of Gwalior forest division and therefore I was picked up to delve deeper into the matter of the Hiran’s death and find out the truth.
Soon, I was aboard a train to Gwalior, all the while wondering what species of animal that ‘Hiran’ might be? I reached late in the night and, after leaving instructions for the divisional forest officer to report to me at seven, in the morning, headed straight to bed.
I got up early when it was still dark and decided to go for a walk. As I sauntered on the street to the railway station, plans for the day’s action began to form in my head.
For my investigation, I had but a copy of the preliminary offence report (POR) – that was hardly of any help, so to say, for it was a printed form only a quarter of a sheet of paper. The details that I would need to commence my investigation were entirely missing. The POR that I had, didn’t say much – except that the staff had recovered a dead Hiran from the foundation of a house under construction at an upcoming colony in the outskirts of Gwalior town. The wisdom of the person who wrote that offence report baffled me as ‘Hiran’ is a generic name loosely applied to both deer and antelope, and as the staff had consigned the dead animal to flames soon after the postmortem, there was no way to identify the animal.
Interestingly the PM report, too, referred to the animal as ‘Hiran’ which had died a natural death. So, till then, I didn’t even know which animal species was found dead some fifteen days ago; and now finding the identity of that animal was the foremost object of my inquest. I still hoped that the forest staff was intelligent enough and had taken photographs before burning the dead animal or the residents of that colony would throw some light on its identity. I also needed a map of the township showing the location of the scene of the incident and its distance from the scrub forests of Gwalior, for if a wild animal had come into town, it must have come from a jungle unless someone had kept it in captivity illegally.
After getting back to the rest house, I rang up the DFO Mr. Arun Kumar and requested him to bring with him a map which showed the location of the burgeoning colony as well as the forest area of his division. Arun arrived at the appointed time along with his Sub-divisional office and the range officer. The map revealed that the colony was developing at the northeastern outskirts of the town and a reserved forest patch of Gwalior division was only about a kilometer away from the colony.
Our team reached the spot around 8 am. The excavated foundation was about four feet deep and in this trench some residents had first seen the dead ‘Hiran’ early in the morning but had called the forest department in the late afternoon, after weighing pros and cons.
The range officer gave an account of his work – along with his staff he had arrived immediately and retrieved the body, asked a few questions from the person who had called, as the body was stinking, he shoved it into a gunny bag and sent the carcass to the local government veterinarian for postmortem. And after the postmortem, he sent the body to the local nursery – where the staff cremates the dead wild animals. And in the late evening, the carcass was consigned to flames in the presence of the divisional forest officer (a standing instruction from the chief wildlife warden mandates incineration of all dead animals to prevent misuse of their flesh and body parts).
When I reached the scene of the incident, I saw some local men and women, who were loitering outside till we arrived, retreat into their houses and close the doors. I presumed that their previous encounter with the forest staff had been rough. I walked to the nearest house and rang the bell – a lady came out but refused to talk maintaining that she had no knowledge about the dead animal. The person who had reported it was out of town. So, here again, I drew a blank, and the staff offered no clue either. I asked if they had photographed it – the range officer’s face lit up and he pulled a postcard photo from his shirt pocket. The picture was taken in the evening without a flash and not of the body of the dead animal but of the gunny bag in which it was crammed into – only a tiny part of its head and snout was visible and which to my chagrin did nothing to divulge the identity of the species. I asked him to get this photograph enlarged as big as the studio could make without losing details, and to meet me at the rest house as soon as he could.
I came back to the rest house to wait for the photograph. After about an hour a jubilant range officer was standing before me with the enlargement. I saw the enlarged image – now the head of the animal was clearly visible – two large and two small horns were protruding from its skull just above its lifeless eyes. It was a chowsingha (the four horned antelope). The Range officer had never seen this animal before, and despite the clear picture, he was at a loss. I revealed the identity to all present and asked Mr. Kori, the sub-divisional officer to fetch from his office the population estimation records of last five years. Within twenty minutes the reports were with us, the purpose was to find out the locations of habitats within the forest division harbouring chowsingha. To my surprise, I found that occurrence of chowsingha was never reported in annual counts anywhere in the forest areas of Gwalior.
Now the question was where the chowsingha had come from into a space inhabited by humans –was it from the local zoo, did the zoo people dump it into the excavation after its death. To find this out, I sent one of the officers to the Gwalior zoo, and he returned after an hour to report that the Gwalior zoo never had this species of antelope.
Determined to find out whereabouts of Chowsingha in the forests of Gwalior I set out with Arun and his team and proceeded for the nearest patch of the reserved forest beyond the colony on the outskirts of the town. To reach this spot, we crossed a small village and trod over fallow crop fields. The patch of forest was, but a scrub turned into the present state by years of unabated overuse by local freebooters who plunder these forests for firewood and timber – not for their use but for selling the loot in Gwalior town – and to graze their cattle.
Thinking about the plight of these forests, I had reached quite deep into the scrub, here I assembled my teammates and asked each of them to choose a direction and start walking in a straight line and holler back if they find any pile of dung or pellets. I too chose a straight path and began walking.
We saw nothing of interest for about five minutes and then the sub-divisional forest officer Mr. Kori’s excited shouts came from the west and one after another the surveyors gathered at the spot where Mr. Kori was squatting near a dung pile. It was a big dung pile, and there was no doubt that it was a mixture of old and very fresh chowsingha droppings.
I instructed them to fetch a photographer to take photos of the dung piles and also of the habitat and then collect dung pellets in a polybag as an evidence of the chowsingha’s presence in the forests of Gwalior in which, according to the forest department’s surveys, none existed.
By this time, I had found the evidence that chowsingha were present in the scrub forests not very far from the spot where the staff had found the dead one a fortnight ago. Now the question was – was it a case of hunting or accident, or mischief (unintentional death in the custody of a captor) or a natural death? I decided to meet the villagers at the village that we had bypassed between the scrub and the new colony. We stopped at the house at the roadside where an assembly was already going on; they got curious when they saw us coming. After a round of introductions and without explaining the purpose of our visit, I showed them the photograph and asked if they had seen that animal in their fields or near the village. Pointing towards the new colony three men at once commented – “Sir, about fifteen or twenty days ago we had seen this animal running in that direction.” They also said that the animal often comes to the wells in their fields to drink.
After getting further enlightened by the villagers, we returned to the rest house. There I examined the veterinary doctor’s report. The postmortem report submitted by him was of no use as it had already concluded that the animal died a natural death; the report did not even mention the species. The condition of the body and presence or absence of wounds was not mentioned. As the flimsiness of the PM report had raised reasonable doubts in my mind, I decided to summon the veterinarian. The local vet from the animal husbandry department came to the rest house within half an hour; he was a tall and plump man with a gait that betrayed his laidback personality. When I questioned him about the postmortem report and asked some pointed questions; he first put the blame on the forest staff that the species mentioned in the POR was ‘Hiran’ and that he had explicitly referred to in his report but he couldn’t answer my question about the lack of details. On further prying and assurances, he confessed that he did not care to take the stinking carcass out of the gunny bag and had only cursorily looked at the exposed parts and that he had based his report on that brief and hasty glance of the carcass.
Now it was almost impossible for me till then to conclude whether the animal had died a natural death or was killed in an accident or killed intentionally by someone but I still had a way to find out if it was a case of deliberate killing then was it killed by a buckshot or a bullet. I asked Arun about the place where they had burned the carcass and how many other animals were burned at the spot since the ‘Hiran’ was incinerated. I also confirmed that none of the previously incinerated animals had died of gunshot wound. I was happy to hear from him that the ‘Hiran’ was the last one. I asked him to instruct his staff at the nursery to scrape every bit of material – ashes and bone pieces from the spot where the animal was burned and collect it in a container and to procure a large strainer. Arun sent these instructions to the nursery staff, and we called it a day.
Next morning at seven we all were at the nursery ready to do our forensic work. We mixed the remains of the body parts and ashes thoroughly mixed with ample amount of water and then strained this mixture. We were actually looking for metal in the ashes, we didn’t find any. It was now safe to conclude that the animal didn’t die from buckshot or bullet.
Starting with no clue to go about my investigation initially, in one and a half day I was able to conclusively identify the species, find out its home near the scene of its death and establish that no firearm was used in causing its death. Now, there were two possible scenarios – either the chowsingha strayed into human habitation and chased by street dogs fell into the excavation and died of shock or after entering the colony a resident captured the chowsingha and thereafter it died of capture myopathy (capture trauma that may ultimately lead to death of the animal) and then the captor, to save his own skin, dumped it. Had the dogs chased the chowsingha they would have found it in the ditch, mauled it and may be eaten it but – as no injury was visible on the body when the staff retrieved the dead animal – this couldn’t have been the case.
Now, ready with conclusions I returned to Bhopal to file my report. The report, of course, mentioned the dire straits in which I found our field personnel, who had no knowledge of the wild animals under their charge, and lacked skills for the collection of evidence and investigating an offence. This shortcoming proved that they were profoundly irresponsible towards their duty. I emphasized the need for organizing regular skill-oriented training courses to all territorial officers and staff. Though I mentioned the callousness and irresponsible and unprofessional conduct of the veterinarian, I couldn’t blame him entirely for he had no training in wild animal forensic and because this was not his primary job. For many years, I crusaded to establish a wildlife health and forensic facility in the state and thankfully in 2008 we could establish the Centre for Wildlife Forensic and Health in collaboration with Nanaji Deshmukh veterinary science University Jabalpur.
Photos and sketch by Suhas Kumar; photo of chowsingha at river by Rajendra Choudhary
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